KYIV - When Ukraine’s economy goes down, applications for English language schools go up, Julie Kravchenko says.
“We win in the times of crisis and economic downturns, as many in Ukraine start studying English,” says Kravchenko, spokeswoman here for the Green Forest English Language School.
Now, with visa-free tourism for Europe’s Schengen zone a real possibility this summer, Ukrainians have a new reason to study English, the international language for Western-looking people.
Historically, demand for Green Forest’s English courses doubled after the 2004 Orange Revolution.
“After the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014, we saw a 10% increase,” Kravchenko said.
Green Forest, a family enterprise, has been in the market since 2001. It teaches 8,000 students in five cities – Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Odessa.
“The market, especially in Kyiv, is very active with at least 230 schools of varying shapes and sizes now operating in the city and oblast -- this is against around 120 schools six years ago,” said Sean Harty, owner of a different private school, the London School of English.
“The majority of these outfits would be run out of two to three room offices with greatly differing levels of professionalism,” he said.
One of Kyiv’s oldest English language schools, LSE also runs a school in Odesa. Nationwide, it teaches about 4,000 students.
“The numbers have been more or less stable since 2014, but the makeup of our clients has altered,” Harty continued. “Ten years ago we would instruct 55% adults vs. 45% young learners (5 - 15 year olds). Now that ratio has switched so that it’s 60% young learners vs. 40% adults”.
Kravchenko said 60% of Green Forest’s students are female aged 20-30.
“Around 70% study English for work, around 10% want to study abroad,” she said. “Some of our students want to relocate. Others want to have a safety net that provides a better employment opportunity either at home or abroad.”
One new Green Forest student here is Olga Kovalitskaya, a 36 year-old dermatologist and mother of two.
"I am studying English to feel abroad as I do at home, and to broaden my vision of the world by means of a different language,” said Kovalitskaya. “I want to be more free. Knowledge of a foreign language is about leaving your own boundaries, which brings even more freedom and life."
Ukraine recorded a low level of English proficiency among adults in 2016, according to the English Proficiency Index, a worldwide measure of English language mastery. Neighboring Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary recorded average or high levels.
Some of this is rooted in grammar and phonology. Ukrainian and Russian are more remote from English than are French or German.
But, more importantly, the Soviet Union isolated people almost 75 years, a condition that narrowed the world outlooks of three generations of Ukrainians.
In state schools, poor teaching skills and outmoded methodology play a role.
English now is generally taught in government schools to students by the time they reach age 10.
Teaching proficiencies vary greatly. It is higher in the capital and larger cities. Smaller regional centers lack qualified staff, modern techniques and up-to-date studying materials.
Harty said he was surprised by the high level of English taught in Kyiv’s secondary schools. But, he said, private English schools are still a step ahead for technology and teaching materials.
Experts say the message that 'English is important' often falls flat. The ambitions of students and parents are often undermined by a lack of skilled instructors, a legacy of the low pay and lack of prestige for teaching in post-Soviet Ukraine.
The Kyiv National Linguistic University issued degrees to 545 English teachers last year. But only a few dozen intended to teach.
“A lot of our graduates study a language first, and then apply for a second degree elsewhere in another specialization, or go to study abroad,” said Olha Kucheryna, an English professor at the university.
Aware of the challenges, the government sponsored a “Year of English” campaign last year.
“The government’s recent marketing campaign aimed at promoting international examinations and integrating Ukrainian universities amongst the European elite has certainly focused minds on English language”, Harty said. “Even though the standard of English language instruction in universities has risen in the last decade, it's still not high enough, especially in connection with communicative skills for students to take and pass international examinations. Hence the need to attend extra classes.”
One free attraction for students is a speaking club run by America House in Kyiv, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. Olha Harbovska, Outreach Manager for this culture center, said 3,000 visitors attend various America House events each month -- training, lectures, workshops - with native speakers.
“Most of our visitors are between 18 and 35 years old and around 80% of them attend because of English language,” Harbovska said. “Our online library with free books to study English and fiction literature is also quite popular, as well as our online streams.”
Other cities, like Lviv and Odesa, “continue to be poorly represented, considering their sizes and international reputation,” Harty said. “Cities such as Dnipro and other oblast capitals have only a fraction of the private language schools needed to meet demand. There are tremendous opportunities still to be had.”
He expects a bump in demand once a visa-free regime for the Schengen zone starts.
“There does seem to be a trend of wealthy investors, with no previous connection to the educational sphere, looking at this market and deciding that it's a good bet for the future,” he said. “We have seen companies focused on tourism move sideways into this business.”
Green Forest website editor Anastasia Rudenko said the school rejected franchising proposals from cities like Kryvyi Rih and Poltava, citing concerns about upholding standards.
Harbovska said some America House alumni started English-language institutions of their own. One is Kyryl Slobodianuk, a veteran of Ukraine’s campaign against separatists in the east.
“He frequently visited AH after he returned from combat,” she recalled. “The visits inspired him, and he created a veterans organization in Kyiv that helps reintegrate returning soldiers and equips them with useful skills.”
For comments or news tips UBJ Weekend Reporter Kateryna Bezruchenko can be reached at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Slider Photo; Green Forest is expanding its English schools in Kyiv (photo: Kateryna Bezruchenko)
Posted March 24, 2017